ZIMBABWE is suffering from yet another cholera outbreak, with cases being reported from around the country.
Chitungwiza, Midlands, Manicaland, Masvingo and Mashonaland Central provinces are all reporting cases of cholera, although all the cases so far have been traced to Harare.
Something is clearly wrong with Harare water, and has been since the turn of the millennium.
The debate about the quality of the drinking water in the capital has been going on for the best part of nearly two decades. In 1998, then executive mayor Solomon Tawengwa− late − had to choose between building a mayoral mansion and fixing the capital’s water problems. He chose to build the mansion, which eventually cost Z$65 million (about US$5,7 million).
By November of the same year, Harare was experiencing sporadic water cuts and the city’s public health facilities, sanitation, hospitals and other public infrastructure were falling into decrepitude. City workers were getting paid sporadically. But work continued unabated on the mayoral mansion.
Somehow the city did not suffer from any major disease outbreak. Tawengwa died in 2004, and was declared a national hero, with then President Robert Mugabe telling mourners that the former mayor had stood for social justice, social welfare and economic empowerment for the marginalised without a hint of irony.
Meanwhile, Harare has never recovered from his misjudgment, and it did not help matters that successive city administrations have failed to address its water problems or improve infrastructure.
As Zimbabwe fell into a comatose during the hyperinflation era for the best part of the decade to 2009, Harare’s problems persisted.
The city stopped collecting garbage in most areas. Effluent from burst pipes started to flow freely on the streets, as is the case now. Then in 2008, Zimbabwe suffered its biggest cholera outbreak, when 4 500 people died and another 40 000 were treated after being infected. It was Africa’s deadliest outbreak for nearly two decades. Since then, Zimbabwe has remained a cholera hotspot.
Some areas of Harare have not received council water for over 20 years and these rely mainly on borehole water.
In January last year, former Health minister David Parirenyatwa said 95% of boreholes in the city suburbs were contaminated with faecal matter, with users at the risk of infection. The same applied to bottled water as some companies were bottling borehole water. No one in government and the city administration has taken action, mainly citing financial constraints.
Yesterday, the government declared the Harare cholera outbreak an emergency after 20 people died from the waterborne disease with more than 2 000 people being treated after they were infected from drinking contaminated water.
The outbreak is because burst sewers in Budiriro and Glen View suburbs contaminated water in boreholes and open wells used by residents in these areas. These are long standing problems that authorities have ignored.
Meanwhile, Harare’s wage bill has remained unsustainably high since the turn of the millennium and currently chews 64% of its income. The city is massively recruiting again, with the wage costs expected to rise above 80% of its city revenue. Service delivery, meanwhile, remains on the back burner and the city’s residents remain at grave risk.
Lessons have not been learnt by the city or government.